Optimism comes as a surprise in dark ‘Xenia’

“It was so unexpected! Everyone in the audience stood up and clapped. It was an incredible moment, and not just for me but for everyone who worked on the film.” Panos Koutras sounds groggy and winded. As I speak to him on the phone from Athens, it’s 9 o’clock on a Tuesday morning in Cannes and the director is getting ready to go to the headquarters of the French city’s international film festival.

The previous night, May 21, his latest film, “Xenia,” had premiered in the 67th Festival de Cannes’s Un Certain Regard section, earning the Greek filmmaker the audience’s appreciation and critical acclaim, if no awards or distinctions.

“I’m not exactly tasting what they call success. I see mistakes, problems, things I should have done,” he says, adding that he was surprised by the audience’s general perception that “Xenia” is an optimistic film.

“Yet it ends with the two heroes fading into the sunset, in a country where it is going dark. Even if you look at it semiologically…” he wonders aloud.

Koutras describes the film as a “farewell to youth,” saying that he wanted to make something “about adolescence before it was too late,” about its drive and tension, its rebelliousness, the feeling it gives you of being “different, unique.”

Perhaps that is why there is so much music in the film, as well as a brief cameo by Italian pop diva Patty Pravo, who was especially popular in the 1970s.

The film’s heroes, Greek-Albanian 16-year-old Danny and his 18-year-old brother Odysseas, may be thoroughly 21st-century youths, but they love disco, as their passionate dancing to Pravo’s music shows. The boys’ Albanian mother, a music conservatory graduate who ran out of luck and ended up working at a washed-up bouzouki joint, sucked in by alcoholism and abandoned by an abusive mother, has died. Her death prompts the boys to seek their father in Greece, and specifically in Thessaloniki, where he has joined the far-right and made a fortune selling protection.

Melodrama has always been an important part of Koutras’s work (“Real Life” and Strella”) but the director has the skill and sensitivity to transform it into something grotesque, fantastical, multilayered, desperately tender and liberatingly human. Transsexual Strella and gay punk Danny are imbued with the strength to turn childhood trauma into love and a profound sense of justice. They are people trapped in themselves, living in trapped societies. Even the escape of fantasy appears to crash into a violent reality that seems to always be waiting for them around the corner, waiting to poison all joy and pleasure. But Koutras’s heroes are always brave. They seem fragile, but they are ready to fight injustice. They are tough, funny and dangerous in equal measure. And this is one of the characteristics of “Xenia” that holds the audience’s attention. Nothing is as it seems, everything is nuanced and changeable. The characters experience shifts in mood, while also entertaining a great joie de vivre and thirst for a better life. They go after life with vigor, their senses alert in an environment that is artfully realistic: Felliniesque ships, a chase through the woods that appears like something out of Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter” (a reference to “Rebel Without a Cause”), magical moonlit nights, a giant rabbit, Patty Pravo playing the background, images of a magician’s tricks and all the while a portrait of Greece, a country in crisis, and the crisis of adolescence. Everything is fluid in “Xenia” except for the neo-Nazis, who attack anything and anyone foreign or different, making Athens even darker and dirtier than it already is.

When I ask Koutras to comment on Greece’s first round of local elections on May 18, which saw the neofascist Golden Dawn party making significant gains – as it did in the runoffs and the polls for European Parliament on May 25 – he says he is not surprised, but he is very saddened.

“I am not surprised because as a gay rights activist myself I know that there was a group of fascists in the early 2000s going around beating gay people mercilessly. It’s just that the riches and ‘prosperity’ of that time covered their presence,” he explains.

“Xenia” is a Greek-French production backed by Eurimages. The screenplay was written by Koutras and Panagiotis Evangelidis. Helene Louvart and Simos Sarketzis were the directors of photography. The costumes were designed by Vassilis Barbarigos and the film was edited by Giorgos Lambrinos. It stars Kostas Nikouli (Danny) and Nikos Gelia (Odysseas), Romanna Lobats, Angelos Papadimitriou, Yiannis Stankoglou and Marissa Triantafyllidou. The two protagonists are not professionally trained actors. Nikouli was a high school senior during filming and is now a freshman at drama school, while Gelia is in his second year of acting school.

“Xenia” will open at French theaters on June 18 and in Greek theaters on October 9.

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